Upstate Colorado exceeds job goals

Upstate Colorado has come in ahead of schedule in job-creation goals set in 2009, with more than 5,000 jobs created in just four years instead of five.

The Weld County economic development organization has seen 5,350 new jobs created as a result of new company attraction or the expansion of existing companies in the area as of this month.

There are a lot of factors that have contributed to the improved employment situation in Weld, though a better economy helped considerably. But Upstate also developed a campaign to get the county’s unemployment rate down, which included the creation of a Leadership Council.

The Leadership Council was created in order to “identify and capitalize on emerging opportunities,” and “select and fund initiatives with the potential to transform Weld County’s economy,” according to the campaign’s brochure.

The council consisted of 35 business and community representatives whose organizations committed to donations of $10,000 or more for five years, beginning back in 2009.

Prior to launching the campaign, Upstate had only three investors who donated $10,000 or more per year.

Conversation surrounding job creation in Weld County invariably involved the words “oil and gas,” but job growth came from other industries as well, according to Eric Berglund, CEO of Upstate Colorado.

For example, the area saw sizable increases in the business-support sector, with companies like Xerox and TeleTech bringing hundreds of call center jobs to Greeley. Pharmaceutical company Tolmar expanded from Fort Collins to Weld County in 2012, and mobile technology case maker OtterBox announced the location of a distribution center in Frederick, creating about 200 jobs there.

That being said, the presence of oil and gas in Weld County cannot be ignored. Companies like Halliburton, Noble and Anadarko have also added hundreds of jobs to the area over the last few years.

The years 2009 through 2011 each saw growth of about 1,200 jobs annually, according to Berglund, but 2012 outpaced the rest, with 1,800 jobs created.

As a result, the unemployment rate in Weld County is still higher than the national average (7.7 percent as of November) but it has dropped from 11.5 percent in 2009 to about 8.9 percent today, according to Weld County Commissioner and Upstate board member Sean Conway.

Upstate also underwent a leadership change in the middle of the campaign, with former CEO Larry Burkhardt abruptly leaving the organization in mid-2011. Berglund was installed as interim CEO, and was named Burkhardt’s permanent successor about five months ago.

The campaign, meanwhile, also was meant to help solidify Upstate’s rebranding from its former incarnation, the Greeley-Weld Economic Development Action Partnership.

Upstate went into its campaign fully aware it was facing big challenges. Among them: Global economic uncertainty, uneven growth patterns and a disparity in the education levels and wealth segments of the county’s population.

“Such daunting challenges call for strong private and public leaders to join forces and chart a unified course of action for the entire county and for our region,” the campaign’s brochure says.

In this regard, the campaign also was successful, according to Berglund.

“The Leadership Council worked to make Upstate as efficient as possible,” Berglund said.

In the process, the investor base of Upstate shifted as well. Prior to the campaign, Berglund said, about 80 percent of Upstate’s funding came from public sources and program funding, like grants and enterprise zone money. The remaining 20 percent came from private sources.

Today, the amount of public and program funding has fallen to 40 percent, while 60 percent of Upstate’s funding comes from private investors.

This shift was no coincidence, Berglund said, but instead was the result of a “strategic decision to increase private support.”

Conway said he was “exceedingly pleased” with the way the private sector increased its support.

“The initiative was started by the private sector, not the government,” Conway said. “It was private people stepping up and saying, ‘We want to be part of the solution,’ and becoming personally involved.”

The campaign also improved what Berglund called the “workforce pipeline,” creating stronger links between employers and educators like UNC and Aims Community College.

Moving forward, Upstate has plans to hold a series of public meetings that it hopes will garner some input on the subject of job creation from residents of the communities that Upstate serves.

More specifically, the meetings will look at an approach similar to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s economic development plan for the state, dubbed “The Colorado Blueprint, a bottom-up approach to economic development.”

“The Upstate board wants to emulate the way the state handled that,” Conway said. “We want to take a proactive stance and speak to the public about job growth.”

Molly Armbrister covers real estate, banking and health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-232-3139, marmbrister@ncbr.com or twitter.com/MArmbristerNCBR

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